Wednesday, 19 September 2012

'Real Africa' - A road less travelled.

From Lake Naivasha we braced ourselves for the journey west into 'real Kenya'; the bit that not many people visit. A couple of years ago our good friends Jess and Graham spent six months plus in this little known corner of Africa and we were keen to see the places they spoke so fondly of, the place they had made their home.

Perhaps most famous for the shocking tribal violence that erupted around the 2008 elections, Kisumu, set on the banks of Lake Victoria,  is Kenya's third largest city (though it was only granted city status in 2001and has a population of only about 400,000) and more importantly, home to Obama's grandmother! Read any guidebook and descriptions of the place are slim on the details. There are no lions, leopards or beaches to lure the crowds of foreign visitors that Kenya receives each year. Instead it is an area known for its high levels of malaria, poverty and HIV and is home to an impressive number of NGOs and aid agencies all trying to address these endemic problems. However, despite all of this, Jess had managed to build a successful tour agency business out of the sights to see in the area, a wonderful community based tourism project that not only has brought this corner of Kenya to life for tourists who are after something a little more authentic but that also gives back to the people who need it most and supports some of the vital work that is being done in the area; Integritour. It sounded like people were missing a trick leaving this part of the country off their holiday itineraries and we were keen to explore. We weren't sure what to expect as we bundled ourselves into a series of matatus and made our way from the paved roads and tourist infrastructure of the East to the dusty bumpy roads of the west, all the way to Kisumu.

As we were dropped in  a bustling matatu station on the edge of town with night fast approaching and not one other mzungu in sight, I have to admit that we felt a bit on edge. Not only could we not see any other westerners  around at all, but we hadn't seen one other white person since we left our camp in Naivasha and we felt a millions miles from anywhere. The only towns we'd passed on our way were akin to scenes from the Constant Gardener depicting heart-breaking poverty, disease and filth, and the only stops we'd made had been for our fellow passengers to buy live chickens and goats, presumably for their dinner. As we edged closer to our destination, serenaded by a group of women singing gospel songs, we really did feel like we'd stumbled upon the quintessential Africa of  the news stories and red nose day campaigns and we weren't sure what to make of it yet.

It turns out Kisumu doesn't have that many taxis, instead people use boda bodas (a bicycle that has a little cushion on the back) . Two enthusiastic boda boda riders approached us lost looking white people and offered to take us into town. We laughed and gestured to our huge rucksacks; no way I was letting anyone peddle me anywhere with that extra weight. They spoke little English but after a few gestures and mimes they ran off to find us a taxi, leaving us standing in the dark with eyes peering curiously at us, but feeling a little less alone. They finally returned with a tuk-tuk friend and beamed at the modest tip they received in return for their kindness . We were so grateful to them for their help. I'm really not sure how we'd have found our way anywhere without them as it turned out to be a fair distance from the bus station to the centre of town and our hotel,  The Duke of Breeze. The warm welcome we received there from Charles on the front desk made us feel immediately at home. Phew! It was actually the most friendly place we'd yet been.

This friendliness was a theme throughout our stay in Kisumu. I think that because people are not as used to tourists as in other parts of the country, they are not all out to make a quick buck and are, instead, curious about what you are doing there, where you are from, and who you are. Everywhere we went people came to shake our hands and welcome us to their town and country and the children ran out excitedly to stare at us yelling 'mzungu mzungu' (white person!). It was sometimes disconcerting but more often disarmingly touching.

Kisumu is a very 'African' city. With few remnants of its colonial history it boasts few historical buildings and the town centre is a collection of fairly ugly concrete monstrosities. It does have a central park though which serves as a meeting place for businesses and public gatherings, and felt a safe and pleasant-ish place to take a walk. There are a couple of restaurants, a couple of hotels, a sprawling market (one of the largest in the country) focused mainly on the main road out of town, and that's about it. At first glance, as a tourist, the place is pretty inaccessible. It was only once we had sampled a couple of Jess' tours that we realised how lucky we were to experience this authentic slice of Africa and to see that it is far from the doom and gloom so often presented to us on the news.

Unlike other tours we experienced in Africa, Integritour offered us a true insight into the culture, history and beat of the place. We weren't seeing 'sights' as such so perhaps this had something to do with it, but Tom our  guide, was hugely knowledgeable about the area, the people, the history and brought the area alive for us. We visited the biggest slum in the city, Nyalenda, where we were invited to drop in on a school to meet the children and watch a class being taken, and afterwards to visit the neighbouring clinic to see the good work they do there for hundreds of people every day. It was incredibly humbling yet also uplifting. There are so many people out there doing wonderful work for their communities, changing people's lives on a daily basis, and their dedication and hard work is inspirational; a far cry from the helpless, hopeless victims we are so often presented with in any news story that features this 'dark continent'.

Our next tour was more cultural and nature based. A day break boat trip on Lake Victoria, taking in the flora and fauna of the region and visiting a traditional Luo village homestead on the banks of one of the Lake's tributaries. Unfortunately we were not blessed with a clear day or the magical sunrise that this tour is famous for, but this didn't matter. We watched the fisherman selling their catch on the riverbanks, and others setting sail out into the distance to start their day's fishing on the water. We peeked at birds flitting about, and glimpsed the hippos as they came up for air. We were even lucky enough to be introduced to a woman distilling some illegal changaa, the local home-brew made from fermented sugar cane that is so famous for sending people blind in Nairobi (only when tampered with). When brewed as it should be it makes for a very strong but otherwise harmless tipple. Finally, we were introduced to a Luo family and invited into their home, a group of  mud huts that the head of the family had artfully decorated with paintings of Kenyan wildlife.


What we were left with from our brief stint in Kisumu was a sense of hope. Yes Kenya is poor, there is disease, there is crime, there is corruption; the same old issues we hear of time and time again and which can sometimes seem insurmountable. But there are also so many people who are willing to work hard to make life better for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for their people. Once you scratch the surface a little, the originally hopeless picture starts to melt away and you can find so much that is good. People look after each other here, they care about each other and they share what little they have. Bit by bit, they are working together to try to improve their lot.This story is similar in many developing countries around the world and I have witnessed a similar sense of kindness and community in the slums of India, Brazil and Nepal. Coming from a world where there is so much, too much to go around, it is a lesson I never tire of learning and it never fails to bring me back down to earth with a bump. As I finish this off Chris and I are now back in the UK. It has been such a shock to discover all of our belongings; so many 'things' that we simply don't need and, cliched as it may sound, it is the honest truth that I often think of the people we have met who have so little and yet are happy and sure of what they do have and try to learn from their example, their simplicity of being. In the few weeks we have been back my mind has become so cluttered with things, thoughts and decisions that their world sometimes seems a lifetime away. I wouldn't swap the privilege that I have had in my life for the world and I am all the more thankful for it these days, but it certainly does me no harm to remember how good the simple things in life can be once in a while, how we really don't need too many 'things' to be happy.

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